Away down South in Dixie

In accent and manner, George W. knows how to play the part when he sweeps through Mississippi, including taking a swipe at Hillary.

Published October 11, 1999 12:00PM (EDT)

Texas Gov. George W. Bush blew through town in a hurry last Friday afternoon, but not before managing to break the record for the single most successful political fund-raiser in the state's history.

Bush raced through his paces for Mississippi's GOP elite at a $1,000-a-plate luncheon for Republican gubernatorial candidate Mike Parker, then held a seven-minute press conference before bolting out of the Crown Plaza Hotel and heading off to Florida.

Afterward, the Parker campaign said it raised approximately $300,000 at the event. In 1995, it took former President George Bush a day-long series of four events to raise $500,000 on behalf of Gov. Kirk Fordice's reelection campaign.

On Friday, Southern hospitality was everywhere as "W" arrived at the hotel ballroom. Magnolias -- the Mississippi state flower -- were laid out with bluebonnets -- the Texas state flower -- on all 36 tables, alongside miniatures of the two states' flags. A pianist played Dixie tunes in the background.

"This is so exciting," said one woman in front of the press riser. "Mississippi never gets anything like this."

Parker told the crowd that George W. is a "boy who has a good mama and daddy."

Bush introduced himself as simply "George W." and stood patiently as snapshot after snapshot lit up the room. He hugged and kissed cheeks, acting more like this was a family reunion than a campaign stop. He said he had come to Mississippi, which was one of the 19 states GOP nominee Bob Dole carried in 1996, to earn "goodwill" for "if and when" he is elected president.

Bush delivered his standard "conservative compassion" speech, though at an extremely accelerated pace, and also with a noticeable thickening of his Texas accent, seeing as he was here in the Deep South. Besides hitting all his usual message points on education, family values and the American dream, he blew a rhetorical kiss toward his beleaguered GOP colleagues in Congress: "Take a deep breath," he stated, "help is on the way."

However, at the press conference afterward, Bush also reiterated his recent criticism of budget moves by some Republicans in Congress, which has caused consternation among some GOP lawmakers.

"What I said was I didn't think we ought to balance the budget on the backs of the poor. I felt like the earned income tax credit as a device to balance the budget wasn't in my judgment the right thing to do."

Bush said his differences with Congress are not personal, but purely a matter of disagreeing over policy.

"I've got great relations with members of both the Senate and House, and I intend to keep it that way," he said.

Bush also mentioned at one point that his wife, Laura, would make a great first lady. He added, "Her most important job, though, is mother, not first lady." It was an obvious jab at Hillary Clinton that did not go unnoticed with this highly partisan crowd.

It appeared that everyone in the hall Friday more or less worshipped Bush, except maybe retiring Gov. Fordice, who was state chair of the now-defunct Dan Quayle campaign earlier this year until news that Fordice was conducting an affair leaked out. Fordice, who left the Bush luncheon early, can't run for office again because of term limits, opening the way for Parker's current bid.

While he was at the event, Bush visited every table and shook every hand in the place, which took him 15 minutes. When he neared the press area, Bush asked the reporters if they were behaving themselves. One answered, "We are back here behind this rope like animals."

Bush laughed. "I'm the one in the zoo," he quipped.

Asked about real-estate mogul Donald Trump's formation of a presidential exploratory committee to seek the Reform Party's nomination, Bush just grinned and answered, "I don't know him."

Bush's supporters at the lunch speculated about their man's chances to carry the South in next year's election.

"[Al] Gore is not a problem in the South," said Ellen Jernigan, a longtime active Republican in the Magnolia State. "Bush will carry Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi. People are sick of Clinton."

Jernigan paused and said, "We all just hope the Democrats like Gore enough to give him the nomination. We could have a problem on our hands with [Bill] Bradley."

To the locals, the relative financial power of the two major parties couldn't have been more starkly on display. Just the day before Bush's visit, Mississippi native son and bestselling author John Grisham was the star attraction at a $100-a-plate event for Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Ronnie Musgrove.

No fund-raising records were set at that event.

By Suzi Parker

Suzi Parker is an Arkansas writer.

MORE FROM Suzi Parker

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George W. Bush Republican Party